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Parshat Behar — City life

The talmudic sages understood the conveniences of city life, beginning with indoor plumbing; but the very setting distances people from religion (Behar)
Neolithic excavations at Skara Brae on Orkney in Scotland. (CC BY-SA, John Burka/ Wikimedia Commons)
Neolithic excavations at Skara Brae on Orkney in Scotland. (CC BY-SA, John Burka/ Wikimedia Commons)

The winter of 1850 was one of the worst Scotland could remember. The storms killed over 200 people and caused massive damage. It tore at the buildings and landscape, uprooting trees and remodeling the earth.

When the storm had died, the people of Mainland — the largest island in the Orkney island chain — found that thousands of years of soil and silt had been swept away from what was once a grassy knoll on William Watt’s land, exposing the ruins of an ancient village below.

At first, the nine circular homes that were discovered were thought to be about 2,500 years old, but subsequent excavations and radioactive dating showed that they were actually built in approximately 3100 BCE.

That made the small village — called Skara Brae, after the hill where it was found — one of the oldest ever discovered in Europe. It was built before Stonehenge, and was older than the oldest wheel yet discovered.

The Neolithic people of Skara Brae built their homes several hundred years before the Egyptians constructed the first pyramids. They were already living in the settlement as King Scorpion I ascended the throne in Egypt. According to traditional biblical dating, Skara Brae was constructed some 800 years before Noah’s flood.

On the far curving shore of the bay lies Skara Brae, hazy
through the sea-haar. (George Mackay Brown – Rockpools and Daffodils)

The homes of Skara Brae are incredibly well preserved. The thick walls of the round homes are cut into the rock. In most of the homes, you can even still see the furniture — the beds and dresser that each family had, with the hearth in the center of their 40-square-meter houses. Although there are no roofs on the homes now, it is thought that they were once covered with straw or some other material. These are the best preserved Neolithic homes in Europe.

Interior of a Neolithic home in Skara Brae. (CC BY, Shadowgate/Flickr)

If you want to see the village, you can fly from Edinburgh or Glasgow to the Orkneys in an hour or so; or you can take the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, or 90-minute ferry ride from Scrabster up to Stromness.

For about 600 years, people lived in Skara Brae, (which was a lot warmer then than it is today). They farmed animals, grew crops and caught fish in the ocean, which back then was further away from the settlement. Nobody knows why the people of Skara Brae moved away or died out, and we do not know what name they gave to their village, but they left us an amazing record of an ancient time.

Three examples of Carved Stone Balls found in Scotland, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow. (CC BY-SA Johnbod/ Wikimedia Commons)

The people of Skara Brae left us five carved stone balls which were found at the site (nobody today knows what purpose they served). Archaeologists found tools that were fashioned from rocks, bones that were used for jewelry and jars and pots made from clay in a style known as Grooved Ware.

Full-sized and miniature roughouts from Coll and Skara Brae. (CC BY-SA, Nachosan/ Wikimedia Commons)

The agricultural revolution was the most significant development leading to our modern lifestyle. The transition from foragers to farmers, with the accompanying move from a nomadic lifestyle to fixed homes in small towns completely transformed the way humans live. It was perhaps an even more radical stage of our development than the industrial or digital revolutions of the past couple of hundred years.

Instead of wandering the countryside to find plants and animals to eat, Homo sapiens figured out how to bring the cows, sheep, goats and crops to them. They now had a secure and constant source of food, as well as hides and wool for clothing and bone to make knives. Life became easier for the humans.

Robert Hooke’s drawing of a flea in Micrographia, 1665. (Public Domain, National Library of Wales/ Wikimedia Commons)

But there was a price to be paid. It was not only the useful animals that joined the Neolithic communities. In Skara Brae, archeologists discovered evidence of the oldest human flea. The move to towns and cities also led to the spread of diseases, as pathogens now had more hosts on whom to prey.

The change in lifestyle also severely limited the nutritional variety that the hunter-gatherer diet provided. And if a crop failed, entire communities would starve to death.

As a result, the kinds of things people prayed for evolved too. Where once a hunter would recite a few words to the gods before setting off on the chase or as he hurled his spear, now people prayed for a good crop and for good health. And just like Cain and Abel, they now had animals and plants to offer as sacrifices to their gods (though the people of Skara Brae left us no record of their religious beliefs).

As time went on and cities became bigger and more established, the distinction between city-dwellers and non-city dwellers became more pronounced.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) says that the order of Mishna which deals primarily with farming and agriculture (Zera’im) is embodied by the prophet Isaiah in the word “faith,” (in Isaiah 33:6). The first tractate in this order of Mishna is Berachot, which contains the laws of blessings to remind people that everything in the world comes from God.

A farmer irrigates her crops in Kabkabiya camp in North Darfur. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Those who worked the land had to worry about the rains and floods and droughts and animal diseases and crop failures. Every day presented fresh challenges for which there were no simple practical solutions, so they were primarily addressed through faith and prayer.

But city dwellers had other problems. If there was no rain, the drought would affect them; but since cities were usually built near sources of water, the cities were less affected by the weather. Similarly, if one crop failed they could often bring food from elsewhere, because many of the major cities were built alongside rivers or coasts.

However, disease was rampant. And once the plague struck there was nothing anyone could do about it but pray. Luckily, plagues only came every few years. The rest of the time each person had their own issues to pray for — success in business, healthy children, and good hygiene.

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Berachot 8a) discuss the most important things to pray for:

‘For this every righteous man should pray to You and the time You are found,’ (Psalms 32:6). Rabbi Chanina said… ‘this refers to a [finding a nice] wife’… Rabbi Natan said… ‘this refers to Torah’… Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak said… ‘this refers to [a nice] death’… Rabbi Yochanan said… ‘this refers to [a nice] burial’… Mar Zutra said… ‘this refers to [a convenient] toilet.’ In Israel, they said that the [opinion] of Mar Zutra was better than all the others.

Ancient public toilets in Dion, Greece. (CC BY-SA, Janmad/ Wikimiedia Commons)

In this week’s Torah portion, we see the clear distinction between those who live in cities and those who work the land.

Behar begins with instructions for the sabbatical year and the jubilee year, when fields must be left to lie fallow. And the Torah (Leviticus 25: 23) stresses that agricultural land may not be sold in perpetuity; rather it is returned to its ancestral family every 50 years.

The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; and you are foreigners and residents with Me.

Every farmer knew only too well that everything he had at every moment belonged solely to God. He was totally dependent on the Divine Will, which decreed whether he would have success or failure. He knew that the land did not really belong to him.

But cities are a different matter entirely. They had a less direct connection to God.

The Torah recognizes this, and has different laws for city dwellers. If someone sells their home in a city, they only have 12 months in which to buy it back (which the Torah refers to as redeeming it). But if not, ownership passes forever to the purchaser, as the verse states, “Leviticus 25:30):

If it is not redeemed before the end of a complete year, the house in the walled city transfers in perpetuity to the purchaser, for all generations; It shall not revert back in the Jubilee year.

It is much harder to find God in a walled city — with its greater protection against enemies, drought and famine. And someone who bought a home in a city knew it belonged to him.

The Inner Walls of the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq, 6th century BCE, from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. (CC BY-SA, Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/ Wikimedia Commons)

But that was okay, because the vast majority of people did not live in urban environments. Up until 1600, less than five percent of the world’s population lived in cities. By 1900, city dwellers were still only 19% of the population. But by 1950, half of the world lived in cities. And by 2000, more than 80% of people living in the Western world lived in cities.

Today, it is much harder for us to pray. Our food comes from supermarkets, our water comes from taps, our health comes from doctors and medicines and there is so much money in the economy that we have to keep inventing new things to buy and dispose of.

How can we find room for God in the world we have created for ourselves? Is it using modern communications and social media to hear about tragedies on the other side of the world? To a certain extent, yes. But even thoughts and prayers have been devalued as activists demand action from governments.

5000 years ago, the people of Skara Brae built a village, as part of a transition from rural to urban living. This would be reflected almost 2,000 years later, on the other side of the world, in the laws given on Mount Sinai which also distinguishing between those who lived off the land and those who lived in cities.

This process has continued until today, surrounding ourselves with walls, while our fast food, disposable lifestyles and sense of self-sufficiency have made the search for God so much more difficult.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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